Dale and Erik, I have found no consistent definition of exactly what qualifies as a ‘catchphrase/catch phrase/catch-phrase’ (see discussion below). But after reading several articles on the subject it seems to me that the Merriam-Webster Online definition (and every other dictionary definition I have seen – and most don’t agree with each other) is too vague to really nail things down. Does a ‘catchphrase’ have to be current (does it have a ‘shelf life’)? How does it differ from a ‘slogan’ or ‘catchword’? . . . . . .
M-W Unabridged says that it is a ‘phrase that has become a ‘catchword’ and goes on to define ‘catchword as “a) a sloganlike and telling word or expression caught up and repeated so that it becomes representative of a political party or belief, a school of thought, or a point of view? or b) a word or phrase distinctive of a subject, scheme of thought, or point of view used especially for effect by one having only superficial acquaintance with the subject or scheme of thought.”
It is interesting that the above M-W Unabridged definition would probably exclude three-quarters of the catchphrases in the two books I have on the subject (‘The Oxford Dictionary of Catch Phrases and Partridge’s ‘A Dictionary of Catch Phrases.’). And ‘The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage definition would probably eliminate the rest: “A phrase that catches on quickly and is repeatedly used with direct or indirect allusion to its first occurrence.”
Using any of the definitions we have seen so far, would, for example, the expression ‘eat my shorts’ be considered a ‘catch phrase.’ Hmm, party, school, point of view? What about ‘caught on and IS used repeatedly’? Well it did catch on and was in the past used repeatedly, but IS it still used repeatedly (and how repeatedly is repeatedly and far in the past is too far? Is the expression now passed its prime and fallen out of catchphrasehood?
Random House says of ‘catchphrase: 1) a phrase that attracts or is meant to attract attention. 2) a phrase, as a slogan, that comes to be widely and repeatedly used, often with little of the original meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary includes 48 quotes containing ‘catch-phrase,’ but fails to define it other than to say of the prefix ‘catch’: ‘that [which] catches or is meant to catch the eye, ear, fancy, etc.’
Gramb’s Words on Words says: “A common or appealing phrase in popular, often unthinking usage; watchword or slogan.
Burchfield’s ‘The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage confidently says: “A phrase that catches on quickly and is repeatedly used with direct or indirect allusion to its first occurrence. The word is first recorded in the mid-19th century. The adoption of catchphrases from popular songs, films, slogans, advertisements, etc. has become a marked feature of the language in the 20th-century.” He than goes on to mention Erik Partridge’s book on ‘catch phrases.’ But in the introduction to his ‘Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ Erik Partridge says in effect that he doesn’t know the definition of a ‘catch phrase,’ but that you will probably recognize one when you see it:
“Friends – and others – have often asked me ‘What the devil is a catch phrase? “I DON’T KNOW.” But I do know that my sympathy lies with the lexicographers. Consult the standard dictionaries, the best and the greatest: you will notice that they tacitly admit the impossibility of precise definition. Perhaps cravenly, I hope that the following brief ‘wafflings’[[his 384 page book on ‘catch phrases’]] will be reinforced by the willingness of readers to allow that ‘example is better than precept’ and thus enable me to ‘get away with it.’ . . . A pen-friend tells me the best definition he has seen is this [[with preferred word substitutions provided by Partridge]]: ‘A catch phrase is a [saying] that has caught on, and pleases the [public].’
The introduction to ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ avoids any attempt at a definition but after giving several examples – some familiar and some not so familiar (as ‘wait and see,’ will the real ___, please stand up,’ ‘life is a state of mind,’ ‘you bet your sweet bippy,’ ‘no problem!’– says the following:
“This illustrates the curious duality of catch phrases. There is an undeniable ephemerality about them—David Crystal [author of ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’] has characterized them as language ‘on the wing.’ But for people exposed to them at an impressionable time of life . . . they stick in a corner of the mind, and cataloguing someone’s mental horde of catch phrases [[so catch phrases are subjective and can be in the eyes of the beholder and old?]] is almost as reliable a diagnostic of their age and interests as counting the growth rings is in determining the age of a tree.”
So is ‘comfort food’ a catchphrase and ‘comfort level’ not or are both catchphrases or neither?— after reading the above, you tell me! (<:)
Ken – September 28, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)